Fourteen years ago the United States took a drubbing from the Legion of the Darkness, otherwise known as al-Qaeda. I was impressed at the time that President Bush responded forcefully and appropriately. Rapidly the thinking world aligned with us in this match against religious conservatism. We had the world with us, and we were going to win.
A few days later things started to unravel:
PARIS — As Europeans wait to see how the United States is planning to retaliate for last week’s attacks on Washington and New York, there is growing anxiety here about the tone of American war rhetoric.
President Bush’s reference to a “crusade” against terrorism, which passed almost unnoticed by Americans, rang alarm bells in Europe. It raised fears that the terrorist attacks could spark a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Christians and Muslims, sowing fresh winds of hatred and mistrust.
Yes, despite what some people in the upper levels of government may think, there is a difference between killing people and winning a war. Events unfolded much as could be expected. The total lack of clue translated into misstep following upon misstep, and, despite being re-elected, Bush finished up his stint, leaving behind thousands of dead American soldiers, $800 billion spent, and the initial flood of goodwill just about dried up.
Then another president took over, and the cycle started over again. The new administration, hopefully learning from prior mistakes, vowed not to repeat them, making instead new ones. And the new president won election for a second term.
Which brings us to the current election cycle, and lots of mouthing from both sides. A host of opposition candidates, challenging Cox’s army in number, is weighing in on the current state of the debacle, especially as this year the murderous squads have started to strike in the United States (and France). What many of these candidates are saying seems based more on political strike effect than on fact. Namely, Daesh (ISIS cool) bred off Bush’s failed vision. Daesh now is Obama’s intransigence come home to roost. Does anybody really know what they are talking about? I looked for answers.
One voice keeps coming through with clarity. I see him pop up regularly on CNN. He’s Michael Weiss:
Michael Weiss is a columnist for Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, and NOW Lebanon. He is also a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia where he is the editor-in-chief of The Interpreter, an online news and translation journal covering Russian foreign policy and the ongoing war in Ukraine. He has covered the Syria uprising since its inception in 2011 and reported from the front-lines of Aleppo in 2012 for Foreign Affairs magazine.
Explaining the roots, the motivation, the methods of jihadist terrorism, Weiss’s tone is even and nonjudgmental. While he lays the origins of Daesh at the feet of Bush’s missteps in Iraq, he does not go light on the Obama administration as it fumbles the ball critically. When introduced, Weiss is typically listed as co-author of a book. That book is
Hassan Hassan is Associate Fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, a NYT and Washington Post bestseller. He is a columnist, and former deputy comment editor, for The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi. He focuses on Syria, Iraq and the Gulf States. He also follows Salafist, jihadist and Islamist groups in the MENA region. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, New York Times, among others. He received an MA in International Relations from the University of Nottingham in the UK
What sets these two apart from candidates making shrill talk for your attention is their close involvement. They have been on the case for years, gone to the battle zones, and talked to the people—terrorists, fighters, soldiers, victims. In the current swirl around this topic, it will be worth while to mine from their findings.
I purchased the Kindle edition and read it over the past few days. It’s supposed to take five hours to read, but I kept marking notes and looking up reference. I early blew my five-hour budget. What I will do here is present a few of my take-aways and link them back to references from the book. The reader should leave room for any amount of error on the authors’ part, in which case the reader needs to have a better reference. I will start.
Yes, a typical Daesh fighter is at base a thug of the worst sort. One such was Abdelaziz Kuwan, an edgy 16-year-old from Bahrain. After cajoling his mother into returning his passport to him he went to Syria and drank the Daesh Kool-Aid. He rose through the ranks and collected the brutish rewards:
In ISIS, Abdelaziz discovered new things about himself. He learned that he was violent, brutal, and determined. He beheaded enemies. He kept a Yazidi girl in his house as a sabiyya, or sex slave. She was his prize for his participation in battles against the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces and other Kurdish militias in Sinjar, Iraq, near the Syrian border. According to ISIS’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, one-fifth of the sex slaves taken from Sinjar was distributed to ISIS’s central leadership to do with as it so chose; the remainder was divided amongst the rank and file, like Abdelaziz, as the spoils of war.
Abdelaziz showed us a picture of his sabiyya. She was in her late teens. She “belonged” to Abdelaziz for about a month before she was handed off to other ISIS commanders.
Weiss, Michael; Hassan, Hassan (2015-01-29). ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror . Regan Arts.. Kindle Edition.
After three years a Syrian sniper ended his life.
The birth of Daesh can be traced through a former Jordanian street criminal named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The recent split between al-Qaeda and ISIS was inevitable ever since al-Zarqawi and bin Laden first laid eyes on each other in Afghanistan in 1999. Allied they helped tear Iraq apart, inspired Shia counteratrocities, and took a bloody toll in American and allied lives. It is this history that ties together the past decade of conflict with the agendas of regimes in Iran and Syria, and without which we cannot truly understand ISIS today. Although it’s impossible to determine which side in the jihadist argument will ultimately win out, or even if there will be a winner, the fact that al-Qaeda has for the past year been in a state of fratricidal conflict with its former subsidiary will surely determine how the West continues to fight both.
Weiss, Michael; Hassan, Hassan (2015-01-29). ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror . Regan Arts.. Kindle Edition.
As the Bush administration began to beat the drums for invading Iraq, al-Zarqawi and bin Laden saw opportunity looming. Al-Qaeda and other operatives began to infiltrate Saddam’s regime and were already on the spot when the occupation began to unravel. The role of Paul Bremer, the man President Bush picked to run the occupation, was, while not crucial, critical.
[Colonel Derek] Harvey estimated that between sixty-five and ninety-five thousand members of Saddam’s other praetorian division, the Special Republican Guard, the Mukhabarat (a catchall term encompassing Iraq’s intelligence directorates), the Fedayeen Saddam, and state-subsidized militiamen were all rendered unemployed with the stroke of a pen after Paul Bremer, the Bush-appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), chose to disband the Iraqi military. Many of the sacked officers joined a nascent campaign to expel their expropriators. Added to their ranks were more disaffected Iraqis, victims of the controversial policy of “de-Baathification” that Bremer announced ten days after his touchdown in Baghdad.
Weiss, Michael; Hassan, Hassan (2015-01-29). ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (pp. 21-22). Regan Arts.. Kindle Edition.
The situation in Iraq was downhill from there. The Baath Party was primarily Sunni, and it was the projection of Sunni hegemony that drove the insurgency, and al-Zarqawi.
No minor player in this was Bashar al-Assad, nominal president of Syria and dictator extreme. During the run-up to the U.S. invasion he was prescient enough to give harbor to al-Zarqawi, nominally a deadly enemy. He had the foresight to understand how the chips would fall when the Americans came.
Al-Zarqawi, an acknowledged low-brow dabbler in intrigue, early set the tone. Murderous attacks on Iraqi Shiite leaders and destruction of Shiite shrines.
The al-Askari Mosque bombing accomplished in the international imagination what al-Zarqawi had intended and what most Iraqis had already been living through for three years— a civil war.
Weiss, Michael; Hassan, Hassan (2015-01-29). ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (pp. 59-60). Regan Arts.. Kindle Edition.
Abetting the strife was the installation of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister.
Sunni insurgents paid the Shia back in the same coin. AQI and other Islamist insurgent groups, including ones that would eventually turn on AQI, used every horrific means at their disposal to push the Shia out of Ameriya Fallujah, a Sunni-majority town in western Baghdad that had been choked off and partially starved by the Sadrists. The Iraqi army and police, all answerable to newly installed prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, another Dawa party member, were seen as accomplices to the rampant killings and abductions, which al-Maliki appeared to be tolerating. This was the issue put forth in a classified memo, subsequently leaked, from Stephen Hadley of the White House National Security Council to President Bush in 2006, after Hadley’s visit to Baghdad. “Reports of nondelivery of services to Sunni areas,” the memo read, “intervention by the prime minister’s office to stop military action against Shiite targets and to encourage them against Sunni ones, removal of Iraq’s most effective commanders on a sectarian basis, and efforts to ensure Shiite majorities in all ministries— when combined with the escalation of [Mahdi Army] killings— all suggest a campaign to consolidate Shiite power in Baghdad.”
Weiss, Michael; Hassan, Hassan (2015-01-29). ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (p. 60). Regan Arts.. Kindle Edition.
The United States made the pursuit and killing of al-Zarqawi a prime objective, and in June of 2006 a strike by an F-16 fighter on a safe house near Baqubah put an end to his career but not to the reign of terror and not to the movement that would become Daesh.
Came the new American administration and the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, and AQI (al-Qeada in Iraq)—as the movement came to be known—got the breathing room to rebuild and also the moral justification, fed by the oppression of al-Maliki’s administration.
The Arab Spring, beginning with revolt in Tunisia quickly spread to al-Assad’s Syria, with due cause. Here existed a regime in competition for Saddam’s worst days.
Similar protests soon broke out in Damascus, Homs, Baniyas, and then across all of Syria. The response was widespread state violence. Many peaceful demonstrators and activists were shot by soldiers, riot police, Mukhabarat, and pro– al-Assad militiamen. Others were arrested and hauled off to any number of security prisons. As documented by Human Rights Watch, the secret police used a broad array of torture against their captives, including pipe beatings, whippings, electrocutions, acid burns, fingernail extractions, bastinados, and mock executions. Detainees of all genders and ages were also raped. One woman held at the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence in Damascus, one of the most feared Mukhabarat prisons in Syria, told the BBC what happened to a fellow female prisoner. “He inserted a rat in her vagina. She was screaming. Afterwards we saw blood on the floor. He told her: ‘Is this good enough for you?’ They were mocking her. It was obvious she was in agony. We could see her. After that she no longer moved.”
Weiss, Michael; Hassan, Hassan (2015-01-29). ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (pp. 132-133). Regan Arts.. Kindle Edition.
Operatives of what was to become Daesh infiltrated into Syria, ostensibly to fight the government. Their ultimate goal was to erase the border between Iraq and Syria and to establish a regional caliphate. Rebel groups unwilling to join the caliphate became Daesh’s immediate enemy, and the government saw them as an ally against the rebels. A strange alliance developed.
We have also seen how the regime chooses to deal with terrorism by infiltration. An early defector from ISIS told CNN’s Arwa Damon in February 2012 he witnessed would-be suicide bombers being told by their battlefield emirs that they were going off to attack regime installations. In reality, they were sent on suicide missions against other rebels. “There were a lot of regime locations we could have taken without sustaining losses of our fighters,” the defector Abu Ammara said, “and we would receive orders to retreat.”
Some of this may owe to ISIS’s financial dependence on selling Syria’s oil back to the regime. As a Western intelligence source told the Daily Telegraph in January 2014, just a month before al-Qaeda formally severed its ties with ISIS, “The regime is paying al-Nusra to protect oil and gas pipelines under al-Nusra’s control in the north and east of the country, and is also allowing the transport of oil to regime-held areas. We are also now starting to see evidence of oil and gas facilities under ISIS control.”
Weiss, Michael; Hassan, Hassan (2015-01-29). ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (p. 198). Regan Arts.. Kindle Edition.
Politicians on the presidential stump may want to portray Daesh as the prime enemy of America, democracy, and Christianity. The truth is Daesh’s immediate enemy is that vast body of Islamic factions not aligned with them. There is little to deny that Daesh feeds on American posturing to strengthen its message.
In the mean time, the nation of Syria is emptying out. Were events to run their course unchallenged we could see Syria a wasteland with Daesh fighters praying alone in the dark and Bashar al-Assad and Asma al-Assad hanging from lamp posts. Many more hundreds of thousands of civilians would be dead, more hundreds of thousands fled, many to America.
Aside from humanitarian considerations, it’s a thing neither this country nor any other progressive nation can tolerate. As of this writing, the American military and those of other nations are striking exclusively at Daesh forces in Syria and Iraq. A contingent of American special forces has just announced its presence in Syria, working with rebel groups opposed to Daesh. On the other side, Assad forces have been joined by the Russian military in striking the enemies of Daesh in Syria. The Syria of al-Assad is Russia’s military ally in the region, hosting a Russian naval base on its Mediterranean coast. Shiite Iran next door to Iraq is weighing in on the fight against Sunni Daesh, aiming to become a dominant power in Iraq.
So much for the tactical situation. The authors give additional insight into Daesh’s appeal. In this part of the world, civilians turn their eyes from the atrocities as Daesh provides real governance where none existed before. Official corruption gouges the people routinely here as government employees line their pockets through graft and outright criminal enterprise. Real grievances go without redress by governments whose chief concern is power and self aggrandizement. In contrast, Daesh is not slow to settle local disputes in accordance with prevailing Islamic law. Even prominent Daesh leaders who abuse their position are swiftly dispatched with prejudice.
More important, laws apply to ISIS members and commanders too; ISIS has executed scores of members and commanders for unlawfully profiteering or abusing power. In November 2014, ISIS executed one of its leaders in Deir Ezzor after it accused him of embezzlement and robbery. According to the group, the commander robbed residents after claiming they were apostates. Similar stories are commonly told by members of communities under ISIS control. Imad al-Rawi, from the Iraqi border town of Qa’im, who pledged allegiance to ISIS in August 2014, spoke of ten ISIS members who were executed because they sold tobacco they seized from smugglers. “When they raid shops that sell tobacco, they don’t burn the tobacco,” al-Rawi said. “When they raid a house, they also steal from it. The state executed them when it discovered them. None of those members smoked, they just sold the tobacco.”
Weiss, Michael; Hassan, Hassan (2015-01-29). ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (pp. 227-228). Regan Arts.. Kindle Edition.
In our push to defeat Daesh in Syria and Iraq, it remains apparent we are not offering, nor have we the ability to, a substitute government of the people, by the people, and for the people. That’s my take, and it doesn’t come from the authors.
About the book. William Faulkner supposedly said of Ernest Hemingway, he “has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Weiss and Hassan do this routinely for me. Brush off such terms as Salafism. It really is a word you need to know if you are going to discuss the topic of this book. Hemingway would be comfortable. However, there are terms such as revanchism. That would leave Faulkner chuckling and Hemingway running to his bookshelf. But Don Draper-ish? I had to dig for that.
Nobody needs a proof reader than do I. This does not prevent me from performing the task on others. Examples:
Abu Adnan claimed to have network of smugglers on the Syrian-Turkish border who would help potential fighters enter Syria to join ISIS.
Weiss, Michael; Hassan, Hassan (2015-01-29). ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (p. 212). Regan Arts.. Kindle Edition.
That sentence could benefit from an additional, though minor, word.
Today, the regime relies overwhelming on the paramilitary assets of Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps— both US-designated terrorist entities— to continue its grueling war of attrition against a legion of domestic and foreign-backed insurgencies. These of course consist of Islamist and jihadist rebels, some of whom are former prisoners of the regime, if not former accomplices of it in Iraq.
Weiss, Michael; Hassan, Hassan (2015-01-29). ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (p. 100). Regan Arts.. Kindle Edition.
The highlighted word could have been converted to an adverb without loss of clarity.
The authors refer to works by others. These may be worth a look on my part. If so, look for additional reviews along these lines.